Backward Design: The Right Kind of Work

Someone saw me outside of school, shortly after leading a dozen of our school faculty in developing a content-based unit of study. “You look exhausted.” I nodded in agreement, even though the most physically demanding thing I did that day was set up lunch.

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photo credit: Forward backward via photopin (license)

The concept of backward design was developed by the late Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, in their professional resource Understanding by Design (ASCD, 1998). If you are not familiar with their work, they propose that teachers plan units of study by first considering the end in mind.

  • Stage 1: Determine the big goal, essential questions, and enduring understandings for the unit of study.
  • Stage 2: The teacher crafts a performance task that reliably assesses whether or not each student truly understands the content and skills of focus.
  • Stage 3: The learning plan, which is too often the first step in lesson planning, comes last. It is the journey that will lead students on the path toward the ultimate destination, already determined.

Students can benefit from this type of instructional planning because it gives them better opportunities to develop mastery in a specific topic of study. In a follow up to Understanding by Design, or UbD, Jay McTighe and Carol Ann Tomlinson explain in their text the connection between backward design and differentiated instruction.

Far more students would be successful in school if we understood it to be our jobs to craft circumstances that lead to success rather than letting circumstances take its course. Even the best curriculum delivered in a take-it-or-leave-it fashion will be taken by a few and left by too many. (from Integrating Understanding by Design + Differentiated Instruction, pg. 18)

In other words, teachers are preparing instruction that will better ensure all students can experience success in school. While at first glance this may seem like light duty, planning with the end in mind is different and certainly more complex work for our faculty that attended. “I am so used to writing up my plans for the next day based on the previous lesson and how students responded to my teaching,” noted one teacher. Because UbD goes against the grain of what teachers might normally practice, it requires a higher cognitive load for educators to construct situations in which students develop deeper understanding of core content and skills.

Here are a few images from our time together earlier this week:

We started by reviewing our shared beliefs about literacy, and aligning them with our current practices.
We started by reviewing our shared beliefs about literacy, and aligning them with our current practices. This is an activity suggested in Regie Routman’s book Read, Write, Lead (ASCD, 2014).
Using the KWL tool from Read, Write, Think (www.reading.org), we explored what we already know about UbD and curriculum design.
Using the online KWL tool from Read, Write, Think (www.readwritethink.org), we explored what we already know about UbD and curriculum design.

(You can click here to read what we collaboratively shared and documented on our KWL.)

Using an example lesson unit that was not applied to the UbD framework, I demonstrated with the group how to develop a unit on plant life for 2nd grade using this framework.
Using an example lesson unit that was not applied to the UbD framework, I demonstrated with the group how to develop a unit on plant life for 2nd grade using this framework.
Once we developed my unit as a team, teachers worked together to develop a unit of their own. Amy and Val, our music and art teachers, respectively, discuss possible ideas for big goals in their classrooms.
Once we developed one stage of my unit as a team, teachers worked together to develop a unit of their own. Amy and Val, our music and art teachers respectively, discuss possible ideas for big goals in their classrooms (Stage 1). This process went back and forth to ensure success.
Gabi and Renee, 1st and 5th grade teacher respectively, compare their essential questions to determine if they are open-ended and engaging.
Gabi and Renee, 1st and 5th grade teacher respectively, compare their essential questions to determine if they are open-ended and engaging.
Gabi and Michelle, 3rd grade teacher on the right, realize they are both designing a unit on geography and maps. They get together to ensure that they are addressing the correct social studies and writing standards, as well as calibrating the complexities of their instruction.
Gabi and Michelle, 3rd grade teacher on the right, realized they are both designing a unit on geography and maps. They got together to make sure that they are addressing the correct social studies and writing standards, as well as calibrating the complexities of their instruction.

We avoided using technology right away, for the simple fact that getting our thoughts down on paper and pencil was the better way to develop a first draft. I believe there is a tendency to rush this work when bringing in computers right away. They become tasks to complete instead of work worth digging into with others. Computers also tend to increase isolation, as everyone is staring at a screen and not connecting face-to-face with colleagues. Not to say that the teachers didn’t use technology; several staff used the Common Core State Standards website as a reference while working. Also, once drafts were completed and peer reviewed, they wrote them up in a Google Doc to share out.

Unfortunately, I could only stay for the first day. I did bring in a local literacy consultant to guide the faculty the second day on developing Stage 3 of their units of study (the learning plan). I left everyone with an inspirational quote from McTighe’s and Danielson’s text in our work space:

Teaching is More Than Just a Degree – It is a Profession

Last night, several members of Wisconsin’s Joint Finance Committee voted poorly on many issues related to K-12 public education. To me, the most shocking was the decision that “essentially eliminates teacher licensing standards by allowing public and private schools to hire anyone to teach, even those without a bachelor’s degree”.

There are lots of occupations out there that do not demand a bachelor’s degree, including Governor of Wisconsin. But teaching shouldn’t be one of them.

I should know. I was a classroom teacher for eight years, and a school principal for just as long. Teaching is an incredibly complex and challenging craft. In my estimation, it requires an individual to become very good at teaching at least three years of classroom experience beyond their completed college experience. The foundational learning that occurs in undergraduate courses and student teaching is only the beginning. It truly is a profession that one learns as they do it, and the learning never ends.

As an example, I recently observed a primary teacher facilitate a math lesson on arrays (rows and columns of tiles to convey an equation or form a shape). An uneducated bystander without the requisite background knowledge to understand teaching and learning would observe this lesson and probably think it was fine.

But they would have no idea why. With a highly-trained eye, here is what I saw:

  • The intent of the lesson was clearly stated in writing, verbally, and visually.
  • The teacher kept the students active, allowing them to get up every 10 minutes or so between activities. This is pedagogically-sound (I doubt the term “pedagogy” could be accurately defined by several members of our Joint Finance Committee).
  • She used formative assessment, such as observing answers on held whiteboards, to ensure all students with a wide variety of abilities were ready for the next step.
  • Small actions by the teacher avoided bigger problems with the students. For example, she used thoughtful language that focused on the positive of a student’s actions, instead of pointing out his faults and possibly causing a major behavior disruption. One wrong word could have led to ten minutes of lost instruction.
  • Wait time was given for a student who was struggling to process an answer and share it aloud.
  • A clear transition between arrays and formal geometry was conveyed by the teacher only when every student was ready to cognitively make that transition.

This was not the full extent of all the positive work I saw in her classroom today. At our post-observation conference, I started by asking her how she thought she did. “Well, I wish my questions I presented for the students would have been more open-ended. I wanted to help them get to a deeper understanding of the math concept.” Does this sound like someone who is less than a professional?

Teaching is a special vocation, reserved only for the very best and brightest. It takes both intelligence and empathy, a rare combination that exists in our school and in many, many others in the state. To reduce our profession to something that anyone can do clearly shows the ignorance of the policy makers that somehow saw sanity in a decision that had no business being a part of the Joint Finance Committee.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In summary, getting a license to teach in schools, whether public or private, shouldn’t be as easy as staying at a Holiday Inn Express. You don’t just wake up and become a highly-qualified educator. It takes years of study, experience, reflection, and collaboration to get to a point of excellence. Those that attempt to reduce our status as professionals did not succeed. We know better. All they did was to continue to set public schools up for failure in order to ensure privatization of public education gains momentum in Wisconsin. Our students and young families, the future of Wisconsin, are the ones who will suffer. And all because of money. Education is not a market – it is an endeavor to help build better lives.

Three Ways to Provide Feedback for Digital Student Writing

No discipline has experienced a greater impact from technology than writing.

Photo credit: Unsplash
Photo credit: Unsplash

Blogs, tweets, multimedia timelines, posts, texts…all of these short forms of writing have come about through new digital mediums. Classrooms that adopt these tools during literacy and content instruction are providing learners with more ways to express their thinking and convey information more creatively. I could not imagine schools without them.

Once they are embedded in practice, the next logical step as a teacher is to ask: How can I provide feedback for students through these mediums so their writing improves, as well as to celebrate their work? Here are three ideas.

Google

Recently I have received invitations from our 4th and 5th graders to comment on their writing via Google Docs and Slides. I really like the Comments and Suggestions features. Located at the top right of the file, you can highlight a section of the text and provide feedback for the owner. What the students have shared with me so far are finished products. Therefore, I have made general observations and asked thought-provoking questions to let them know that I read their work carefully and valued their effort.

WordPress

For younger students without a lot of experience in digital writing, transcribing what they write down on paper and posting it on a blog is a great way to model the writing process. For example, my son and a friend gave me a handwritten review of the Tom Gates series by Liz Pichon. I typed up their thoughts, saved the post as a draft, and then emailed their teacher with specific questions about the books they read. This feedback request was done through WordPress, my favorite blogging platform (see arrow).Screen_Shot_2015-04-08_at_8_25_32_PM

I actually sent the request to their teacher, who will hopefully help them write a bit more about why the Tom Gates series is such a good one to read.

Evernote

I was on a mission to a classroom when a 4th grade student asked me to read her writing in the hallway. How could I say no? I compromised by taking out my smartphone and scanning an image of her writing with Evernote. This student’s writing was then saved as a note in her teacher’s professional portfolio, which I keep for all of my staff.

Screen Shot 2015-04-08 at 8.40.17 PMWhen I had time to sit down later, I opened up her note. Having downloaded Skitch, a native Evernote application, I was able to annotate right on her scanned work. This was also a finished piece of writing, so I celebrated what she did well and offered my thinking on possible ideas to consider for the future. This updated note was emailed to her teacher.

What digital tools do you find effective for offering feedback for the author(s)? How do you use them? Please share in the comments.

8 for 8: Eight iOS Apps You Can Learn to Use with Students in Under Eight Minutes

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photo credit: iOS7 Homescreen blurred (DSC_0719) via photopin (license)

1. Nutshell Camera (Prezi)

This app is like Vine, in that you can take a quick video of a subject or action. The difference is that Nutshell is a whole lot easier to use. With your iPhone, take three shots of any scene while the camera rolls. Add text and clip art, and Nutshell creates a professional-looking video clip to share. Great for creating visual summaries of learning.

2. My Story – Storybook and Ebook Maker for Kids by Teachers (HiDef Web Solutions)

After Naomi Harm tweeted out that this app was free, I let my entire staff know about it. Students can draw pictures and words, add clip art, type text, and insert audio of themselves reading their own writing. In just a few minutes, I was able to show a student how to use this app. He was able to create an original book independently.

3. Scannable (Evernote)

This app has been the best thing to come to Evernote since…well, Evernote. Scannable allows you to scan in several documents at one time, and then create one PDF of the content saved. This is really nice for students that have a multiple page story to put in their digital portfolio in Evernote. Educators can use this for saving lengthy meeting handouts.

4. Decide Now! (CafForce Studio)

Formative assessment is easy to talk about, but harder to apply in the classroom. One way to check for understanding during a lesson is to cold call on students. Decide Now! gives the teacher an easy way to do this. Input all of the students’ names, and then push the button in the middle. This way, every student is expected to respond to a question.

5. YouTube Capture (Google, Inc.)

Want to capture video, edit it, and upload that content right away? This app by Google will allow you to do that. It certainly isn’t a replacement for iMovie, but if you are a teacher looking to share student learning via a private classroom YouTube channel, this app seems to be the best way to accomplish that.

6. Canva (Canva)

If you need to mix things up when teaching students how to summarize their thinking, check out this app. Canva is built to allow users to create visual posts for Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. Images, text, and templates are provided. Using this graphic design app in the classroom can be a way to integrate art concepts into content.

7. Animoto (Animoto, Inc.)

Put together a 30 second video that includes your images and/or video, a sound track, and text, and then publish for the world to see. Animoto has been around for awhile (relatively), yet still remains as an essential digital tool to consider when students want to represent their learning in dynamic and visual ways.

8. Marble Math and Marble Math Jr (Artgig)

These apps are more about consumption than creation, but the Marble Math series is worth mentioning. Kids take a marble around a maze and touch the numbers that complete the equation posted. Every problem posed changes in operation, which causes the student to think before solving it. Concepts covered are tied to the Common Core.

Moonlighting as a Teacher

After seven years, I am back in the classroom. Well, sort of.

At a recent mass, our priest made an appeal to the congregation asking for volunteers to teach religious education on Wednesday nights, also known as CCD. I would already be there, dropping of and picking up my son, so I volunteered to be a catechist.

I had everything I needed: A teacher’s manual, textbooks and activity books for the kids, a roster, and a template for preparing lessons. The lesson plan framework was pretty specific. It was suggested that we detail the pages to be read, activities to design, what types of discussions to facilitate, and any assignments I might want to have my students do as homework.

As a beginning teacher, these would be very helpful. I was appreciative of having all of the material ready for me ahead of time. But prior to becoming a principal, I was an intermediate teacher for seven years. As an observer and evaluator of instruction in classrooms for an equal amount of time, I have come to the belief that the lesson plan is more than a series of steps. There is a flow to a great lesson. It considers how to engage the learners. An excellent plan of instruction considers what should happen, but also considers what might. The plan always is steering toward that essential understanding or skill, but is able to change directions or provide multiple pathways to get there.

That is why I use the simplest framework I could think of: BME, or “Beginning-Middle-End”.

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I have no idea if someone came up with this before me, so if I have replicated anyone’s work, my apologies.

When I prepared my lesson (the concept was “faith”), I thought about how I would want to begin. What would capture their hearts and minds – a question, a quote, or maybe sharing an interesting piece of information? How I did elect to start was directly related to the concept. However, I did not post the learning target on the board and point my finger at it, saying, “In today’s lesson, we are going to…”

As I developed the meat of the lesson – the middle – I described the activities I wanted the students to participate in, but not too specifically. I wasn’t 100% sure how the beginning was going to play out, so I wrote a few instructional strategies to consider once we got started. It was during this time that I specifically pointed out what we were learning.

In the end, my plan was to have the students motivated enough to find the answers to their questions that they couldn’t help but share with the class with the help of the text. I modeled how to organize our information around the concept of faith using a Frayer model. I demonstrated this first, and then stood by and wrote their responses on the easel paper where the organizer was drawn out. Students who felt comfortable writing their responses independently were handed the marker. I closed out the lesson by commending everyone for such thoughtful responses and being active learners. We went through each response together to review our thinking before we left for the night.

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To be honest, we didn’t respond to every question in the activity book, nor did I take their workbooks home to check their answers. If I gave my students a test on the content from the textbook, they may not pass. I guess that is something to be aware of for next week. On the bright side, I felt like we had a better understanding of the concept of “faith”, and how it applies to our own lives. I also feel good about giving the students a few learning strategies while attempting to understand the content. I’d like to think it was integrated, authentic, and meaningful.

I hope through my experience as a teacher again, however limited, that I will keep my instructional skills sharp, develop a better perspective about the role of the teacher in today’s educational climate, and try out some of the great strategies I see my own staff using every day.